Many people have the misconception that the U.S. is once again invading a Middle Eastern nation for oil, but the truth is much more complicated. For once, the United States is the reluctant partner in this effort as it is the European nations that are taking the lead on this and oil and (more importantly gas) are their prime motivation.
If you look at where Libyan oil and gas goes, it is mostly to Europe. In fact, over 85% percent of Libyan energy exports go to Europe with only a paltry amount going to the United States. The development of North African oil and gas resources makes sense for the Europeans as it is close, of high quality, and it offsets Europe's dependence on Russian gas imports, a major political and strategic liability. It has been the French, and to a lesser extent the British and the Italians, who have led the war effort, as they realized this was their only option to secure Libyan oil and gas resources in the future.
In recent years, these countries have attempted a type of rapprochement with Libya (Britain released the Lockerbie bomber, Italy made apologies for colonial exploits in Libya, Switzerland dismissed charges against Gaddafi's son for assaulting hotel staff, etc.) because they wanted to develop oil and gas reserves in Libya. This strategy was bearing some fruit (most of the current development there is led by European countries), but this strategy became untenable with Gaddafi's assault on his own people as European populations wouldn't stand for their government's support of the Libyan regime anymore, plus it made E.U. nations look hypocritical in regards to their human rights/democracy agenda.
The E.U. nations were caught in a bind, they knew that they were going to lose their oil and gas supplies from Libya if the rebels were defeated (even if Gaddafi would be willing to sell in the future, sanctions and bad press would make it politically difficult) so once they saw the rebels on the verge of defeat, they had to act. The French were committed at this point because as you will remember they were the first (and I think only) government to recognize the rebels as the legitimate government of Libya (a very bold action considering that this was not an opposition party with any governance experience, but a ragtag group of rebels with no known political agenda aside from ousting Gaddafi), so in their minds no matter what, Gaddafi had to go. They knew they could inflict some initial superficial damage on Gaddafi militarily, but also did not have the military resources to ensure a sustained or successful campaign, as they have been eroding their defense budgets for over a decade (most E.U. nations spend less than 2% of GDP on defense, compared to 7% or so for the U.S.). Also, French President Sarkozy staked his personal reputation on this issue and like several crises before, relished in the opportunity to appear as a leader on the international stage in order to demonstrate that France is still a relevant world power.
The Europeans, especially the French, knew they needed the U.S. involved but President Obama had made it clear he did not want to get drawn into another military conflict so he and the U.S. would have to be induced. Some in Obama’s inner circle were pressing for engagement, but Obama himself and military leaders such as Secretary of Defense Gates were reluctanct to engage in yet another Middle East conflict. This was the rationale behind the clever action of the Europeans of getting a U.N. mandate, which was what Obama said would be required for the U.S. to engage in the enforcement of a no-fly zone, probably thinking that it wouldn’t make it through the Security Council as Russia and China would likely veto it, which surprisingly did not occur.
So, essentially the U.S. was not only pushed reluctantly into this conflict but also has to provide the vast majority of the forces as the French created a situation for Obama where he had to authorize military action or appear weak, indecisive, and hypocritical (in regards to human rights) on the world stage. How ironic; the French goading the Americans into an unwanted military conflict by portraying them as cowardly and unwilling to fight!
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